WASHINGTON, D.C. — What does that World War II word “snafu” mean again?
Korean War veteran Donald Matthiessen of Sterling gave a censored version of the answer: “Situation normal, all fouled up.”
Thursday’s Honor Flight No. 25 of the Quad Cities almost never got off the ground. After the plane struck an owl on its way to the Quad Cities airport, there was the possibility of the flight being canceled. It wasn’t, but takeoff was delayed for nearly three hours.
Then there was the matter of memorials in Washington being closed to the public because of the federal government shutdown.
And, while the 92 veterans – about 60 from the Sauk Valley – were touring the sights, the death of a Connecticut woman who tried to ram her car through a White House barricade led to a temporary lockdown of the Capitol.
Despite all of that, Thursday’s Honor Flight was “one of the most successful flights we’ve ever done,” hub Director Bob Morrison said.
The late flight meant a visit to the Vietnam Memorial wall had to be scrubbed. And the shutdown prevented the veterans from going to the Udvar-Hazy Center Air and Space Museum.
But this Honor Flight was the first from the area to tour the 9/11 Memorial at the Pentagon. It also got to add a bus tour of Fort Myer to the itinerary.
Ninety Korean War veterans made the trip; two served during World War II.
The schedule broke from doughnuts and coffee at the airport to a tearful announcement from the Sun Country Airlines pilot that the flight was being delayed. The jet had struck an owl on its landing into Moline, and the airline had to be certain there was no safety risk.
After two hours of “hurrying up and waiting,” another military expression shared often Thursday, the plane’s engine was tested on the runway as more than a dozen veterans watched from a window. Some cheered as the engine started up and again as the announcement came that the trip was a go.
Shortly after 10 a.m., about three hours off schedule, the plane was in the air on its way to the nation’s capital.
“I’ve been looking forward to this trip with my son (Brian) for quite some time,” said Lowell Grummert of Sterling.
Grummert was drafted as an infantryman.
“My life was as worse as you can get, an infantryman with a rifle,” Grummert can say with a laugh now.
“That’s it, you just go out in the front line. No specialty, just a rifleman. You slept with your rifle.”
“Freedom is not free”
Due to the morning’s delay, only about 15 minutes could be spent at the Korean War Memorial, if the veterans were going to have time to see the 4 p.m. “changing of the guard” at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery.
A barrier awaited veterans and on it a sign that read: “Due to the government shutdown, all national parks are closed.”
A handful of congressmen helped veterans get into the World War II Memorial.
U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, removed the barrier for veterans. A handful of tourists of Korean descent waited outside and watched as veterans were granted access no others were given.
“I waited two years; did they think a barrier was going to stop me?” said veteran Melvin Haenitsch of Ashton.
As Craig DeDecker led his father Richard’s wheelchair into the monument, Braley put his hand on Richard’s shoulder.
“There’s nothing more special than being here father and son,” Braley said. “I would’ve loved to have taken my dad here, but he passed away.”
Different than the other war monuments in the Washington mall, the Korean War monument is filled with detail.
Sculptures of life-sized soldiers wearing rain gear stand out in the open there, while the faces of every occupation that had a hand in the Korean War effort are embossed into the memorial wall.
One veteran remembered telling his mom he was being sent to Korea, after being stationed for a short while in the States.
“She knew something was up, and she was worried,” he said. “I told her I’m going to Korea. I said: ‘Don’t worry, Mom. I’ll come home.’”
Another veteran was impressed with the changing of the guards.
“They’re so polished,” he said of the soldiers. “That’s really something. I’ll never forget that.”
Having to cancel the Lincoln Memorial and not being able to access the Iwo Jima Monument, a former Rock Island Arsenal worker, who is now stationed at the Pentagon, arranged the visit to the new 9/11 Memorial at the Pentagon for the Honor Flight veterans.
It’s safe to say all the veterans were impressed with the reception they received coming home.
Everywhere Honor Flight veterans went, whether it was getting off the plane in Washington, getting on the bus there, or arriving to the airport, they were met by people to give them a thank you and a handshake.
Students from several schools in Illinois and Iowa, as well as family members, wrote letters to veterans. They were passed out during “mail time” before leaving Washington Dulles Airport.
The Quad Cities International Airport reception, however, was the grandest.
Hundreds of family, friends and veteran supporters made a path for veterans to exit the airport in the Quad Cities. A bagpipe played and a grade school band provided patriotic music.
“I came home through Seattle, and we had a few people there to welcome us, and some dancers,” said one Army veteran. “We just went straight home after that. Nothing like we had here.”
“I thought it was great,” another veteran said. “I won’t forget it. I must’ve shook a thousand hands.”
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Local veterans share their Honor Flight memories
“I thought it was outstanding. I wish I had the vocabulary to tell people how wonderful it was. I got 32 years in the military ... The Korean War Memorial was most impressive. As you go in, here’s the statues. They got to be 7-, 8-foot high. As you go in, it looks like they are on patrol, going through the rice paddies. There is a wall around it. They got pictures etched in the wall. When we got back in the bus, one of the guys in the bus told our bus captain, you can see the fear, the anxiety, the trepidation ... you can see every emotion you could possible see. The feeling can’t be expressed.”
Francis Rich, Princeton
“It meant so much. We finally got a little recognition, which we didn’t receive when we got back from Korea. They did a wonderful job. This (trip) was all on no government money. The Korean War Memorial was especially touching. The Pentagon Memorial was a great memorial, and I would urge anyone who goes out to D.C. to see it too. The World War II monument was very nice too. I was so impressed, especially with all the people lined up to greet us in Dulles (Airport in D.C.) ... and then the ones who were there in the Quad Cities when we returned. It was very touching.”
Irvin Gustafson, Princeton
“It was fantastic. It started out like it was going to be a disaster ... But then they got the plane fixed, and it was beautiful. They treated us fantastic. For me, (the most touching) was the Korean Memorial. It was so realistic. (When I was in Korea), I was out there in the field like that. It was so real. Or course the World War II was beautiful ... While we were waiting for the plane to come back at the airport, they had mail call for us. They had people write letters to us. I had a stack of cards from family and friends. I’m glad I didn’t open them then because I would have cried. They treated us beautifully. I couldn’t have asked for more.”
Harold W. Graff, Dover
“I thought it was great. The whole thing was really good; I hadn’t been to Washington for 20 years. When we got back it was really nice. The people were lined up from one end of the airport to meet us. It was surprising to see how many young people were there. Everything was really well organized; it went off without a hitch. I thought the Korean War Memorial was really nice; it stood out to me more than any of them.”
Glenn Miller, Spring Valley
“Despite the delay in the trip, it was an all-around wonderful experience. The weather was great, and the trip was really well organized … When we got in, there were politicians everywhere who met with us, and although all the stuff with the government was going on, we never were aware of what was really happening. Nobody said much about it … It was really neat when we ran into a guy out there who was making camouflage-colored ice cream. I’d never seen anything like that before ... Getting back was also a site to see; I couldn’t believe the hundreds of people waiting to greet us when we flew in.”
Bill Robison, Sheffield
“Seeing the Korean War Memorial was the best part because that’s where I was. I was brought in to transport the soldiers back home … The people on the Honor Flight were the only ones allowed into the gate at the memorial. The public wasn’t allowed in … When we landed, our pilot decided to change her uniform and put on one of our shirts and walked around with us and see the memorials. She was a very personable person, and you wouldn’t have noticed if she was a guardian or not.”
Roland Gibson, Princeton